Thursday, 21 September 2017

Noel Patrick Hilton finds a surname or two…

Strange as it may seem, the extract sequence of events in Dad’s life from when he left the Lyell home until his marriage in 1951 is not entirely clear. Further research may help sort out the timetable of events.

However, the major motivations and main events do seem to be clear.

His key motivation in leaving the Bill and Ivy Lyell household, apart from the common desire to find his own feet, was to find his own family – that is his natural mother and siblings in particular. My guess is that he moved out of the Lyell home in about 1939 or 1940 when he finished high school. What followed must have seemed like a roller coaster ride for the next decade before he settled down. ‘Mum Lyell’ was not keen on the quest but ‘Pop’ understood his motivations

He worked for a while in Sydney building his skills in catering, carpentry and sales work. He quickly reconnected with his mother and sister Joyce. His mother had friends and family in Sydney so it was easy enough to ask around to find them. Joyce worked for the Tivoli and seems to have been in Melbourne in 1935 and early 1936. She spent most of 1936 in Western Australia doing a series of shows with the Ritchie Brothers and their sister Mavis and in 1938 was in New South Wales.

Joyce and his mother had both adopted the surname Deering by this time. It was also used by his father. There were a variety of reasons why they dropped the use of the surname Poe. A common story is that it was a slang term for ‘bedpan’ in some areas. It is also true that Grandfather Poe would have been eager to leave much of his past behind him. He was, for example, determined that no-one takes his photo – a strange thing for a showman. 

The surname Deering is a reference to grandfather Poe’s mother, Minerva Elizabeth Dearing. Poe, like most boys, seems to have been close to his mother and certainly had good connections with his mother’s family. He adopted Deering as he thought it was the original spelling of the name – which turns out to be correct going back to his fourth great grandfather Edward who was born in Virginia in 1725.

Noel and his brother Jack used the surname Lyell when they lived with Bill and Ivy Lyell and while both boys knew their surname was Poe, no thought was given to making any formal change. Noel probably stopped using Lyell soon after reconnecting with his mother and while he also used the surname Deering he may have been more ambivalent about it and adopted the usage ‘Le Poer’ from time to time claiming that his father used it and that it was the original form of the name Poe. Whether this is correct or not, the Dearing family carry a story that the original form was ‘de La Poer’. Grandfather Poe used the form ‘De Poe’ for his first marriage in 1907.

Noel's sister Joyce Deering as a Tivoli soubrette.

Dad’s oldest brother Eric Alexander, known as ‘Al’, had been fostered out very early in his life also, but had an unhappy experience and ran away from families twice. Eventually, he settled with the Argus family in Gippsland. He told me that he was reacquainted with his natural family as the result of a train accident which killed his adopted father and stepsister…

His mother Beatrice managed to keep track of her family which was in various parts of Australia. She was probably living in Queensland at the time she saw a newspaper report of a fatal accident in the town of Bunyip in Gippsland, Victoria. She knew the names of the man and his daughter who were killed in a level crossing accident; this was the family looking after her eldest child Al. She contacted her daughter Edna who was living in Melbourne asking her to track down Al. It is possible that Noel had already contacted his mother by this time, but either way, Beatrice would have seen the tragedy as a way to rebuild connections with her far-flung family.

The accident took place in Jun 1939 and Al was 19 at the time. The police contacted him to ask if he knew the name Deering and when he said he didn’t they told him to forget it. Soon after, he awoke one night recalling that Deering was a childhood name. He rang the police back who put him in contact with Edna who connected him to his father then living in Prahran, Victoria. He met his father and half-sister Siddy who made him feel welcome. Al quickly adopted the surname Deering and must have met Noel in Melbourne not long after.

Noel’s decision to go to Melbourne probably came in 1940/1. His sister Edna, who had married Eric Storey, was in Melbourne at this time and it was where his father was living. At about the same time Beatrice had also moved from Brisbane where she was in 1940 to Melbourne. This was the time of the second world war which had an impact on society and certainly the family.

Unlike his older brothers, Al and Jack, Noel said he did not take part in the second world war. Al enrolled in the army in late 1942 under the surname Deering with his wife Alice (whom he married in January 1940) who lived in Richmond as his next of kin. Following his divorce, he listed his mother, Beatrice Deering, as next of kin. Jack enlisted in May 1941 under the surname Lyell with Bill Lyell as his next of kin though Jack’s legal name at the time was still Poe.

Dad never pointed out that he was too young – but he would not have turned 21 until after the war had ended. However, it was common for younger men to join up. He would often say he ‘had to look after mother’ – which meant his natural mother Beatrice.

But, he also used to say he was a ‘Bourke Street commando’ which in my mind conjured images of unruly youths roaming the streets at night looking for trouble. In fact, he joined the army in May 1944, in his 21st year. At the time, he was living in Richmond. It took me a long while to discover this because he joined under the name Deering, using all his given names – Noel Patrick Hilton. His sister Edna, with whom he was staying, was listed as next of kin.

Certificate of World War Two Service for Noel Patrick Hilton Deering

When he first moved to Melbourne he stayed in Al’s home in Lennox Street Richmond. Al had married and then enlisted but soon divorced which may have meant his home was vacant. At about this time Noel ran a toy shop in Richmond. He made some toys and employed Al and other family members from time to time. Apparently, the toy shop business was in the name of Le Poer though as yet I cannot find any records of this.

It was late in the second world war that his sister Joyce whose work kept her between Sydney and Brisbane met a dashing US serviceman, Irving Steil. After the war, she joined him to America where they married and had one son David. She continued to support her mother from afar and keep in contact with her siblings. In the USA, she continued to work in entertainment and performed with the Mills Brothers, famous for Paper Doll, which she was very proud of.

Edna separated from her husband and was bringing up two daughters, Bonnie and Joyce, by herself. Noel had become involved in helping Edna’s husband to ‘move on’ and became a de facto father to his nieces though he was not much older than the girls. At some point, he moved to live with his sister in a one-room ‘bungalow’ is Erasmus Street Surry Hills.

Edna ran a catering business called ‘Cupid Catering’ which was established in partnership with an investor who also had a used car business. When the partnership was dissolved in 1948, presumably with the loan repaid, Noel was a witness using his actual surname – Poe.

Argus, Friday 18 June 1948, page 9.
Noel Poe as a witness

The business continued however and most of the work was to cater for weddings. Dad helped with the business and employed his cooking skills and also employed other family members including his half-sister who washed dishes.

It was probably late in the 1940s that Noel obtained a job at the Myer’s Store in Bourke Street Melbourne. He worked in the furniture department and quickly became the manager – something he would have been very comfortable doing.  Part of his carpentry experience with the Lyells included making furniture and he had some previous experience in sales. Perhaps this was a move for some financial stability after some business of his own. Whatever the case, he kept up working with his sister and continued to make toys though perhaps without the problems of also managing a shop.

But the hyperactive Noel was also a member of the Showman’s Guild at about this time and worked a Lunar Park, probably selling toys. At present no records of this activity have been found so I don’t know what surname he used.

In about 1950 Noel met Joan Marsh who had started at Myer’s. The two hit it off and Joan helped Noel deliver toys and washed dishes for Edna’s business. Joan lived very near to Noel and sometimes got a lift to work with him. Noel’s niece Bonnie also got a job at Myer’s and came for the ride too. Noel cut a dapper figure in his youth with an impressive car to match, a 1933 Reo Flying Cloud soft-top. Joan enjoyed stirring him by messing up his hair and cutting him off in traffic with her nifty Fiat.


1933 REO Flying Cloud via Pin Interest

In late 1950, Bob Patey – who also lived nearby – spoke to Noel about marrying Bonnie. Bob knew him as ‘Noel Le Poer’ and saw him as ‘a stern uncle’ to Bonnie and Joyce. Years later I spoke to Bob who remembered than Edna, Dad, Bonnie and Joyce all lived in a rented room on the corner of Erasmus and Bentley streets.  Bob was able to Noel that he meant Bonnie no harm and approved the marriage which took place in April 1951.

Bob also recalled that Noel made ‘monkeys on a stick’ – something which he would have learned from his father. ‘They all seemed to have the gipsy element in them.’ ‘All very private people.’ Bob’s comments echo the comment of Joan’s father, who saw them as ‘jungli wallas’ and ‘bizzari types’.

In circumstances which are not entirely clear, both Joan and Noel felt that their respective families were putting various pressures on them to conform to a variety of expectations. Some members of both families thought the relationship was not a good one. Noel, and Joan, in the end, decided that a new start was needed.

Late in 1950 Noel and Joan resigned from Myer’s ahead of marriage and an intention to live in NSW near the Lyell’s.

In February 1951 Noel formally changed his surname to Lyell and dropped the given name ‘Patrick’. He was then known consistently as ‘Noel Hilton Lyell’. On 13 February 1951, he and Joan were married at The Entrance, New South Wales. Officiating was Rev I Keith Watson Baptist minister suggested by bride’s uncle, Rev Frank Marsh.

Noel did some further studies in building, and sunk his savings into a partnership with his adopted father Bill Lyell, and together they completed a number of homes around The Entrance, north of Sydney, one of which was to be theirs at some later stage – at least that was the understanding.

Mr and Mrs Lyell on a building block.
The Entrance, NSW, circa 1951.

Joan got to know Noel’s family and some family friends including Harry Rooklyn who played the violin with her accompanying.  His younger brother Jack had been keen on Noel’s sister Joyce and treated the younger Noel as his nephew. Harry’s other brother Maurice had also been a magician and had at one time cut Noel’s sister Joyce in half.

There was a huge demand for housing after the war as the population increased as the result of migration and a surge in the natural birth rate. A shortage of building materials and labour prompted the development of different methods of construction. Bill and Noel were able to build new fibro-cement homes relatively quickly; however, it seems this contributed to a glut in the area and by about 1952 Noel decided to leave the business to Bill and seek his fortune elsewhere. The men apparently agreed verbally that ‘Pop’ would pay him back with one of the houses at some unspecified future date. Unfortunately, this never came to pass.

Initially, the move was not back to Melbourne. They moved to Sydney and Noel worked at Scruttons engineering supplies in Ultimo. On 9 February 1953, he resigned after working there seven months and they moved back to Melbourne. Noel sold his possessions including a golf set and his Reo both of which he missed for a while, and arrived back in Melbourne with ten shillings. They managed to get a housing loan for a new development in Seaford to the south of Melbourne.

Noel worked for Boyes Brothers hardware merchants in Russell Street, Melbourne from about mid-1952 and resigned 13 June 1957 to start work at Sherlock and Hay in Frankston as by that time his family had begun. 

Noel had finally settled down as Noel Hilton Lyell, hardware salesman, husband and father.

The story of his married life is for another occasion, but for the remainder of his life he never entertained using a different surname and until very late in life could not be drawn on the subject. Many years later, after Joan’s death, Noel became a recluse and kept to himself problems with his health. He announced one day that he was going in for a blood transfusion. He had developed a kind of leukaemia which claimed his life in a short period of time. When the time came to go into hospital he accepted the move with no fuss. He saw his family and wished them off intending he said to have a restful night.

Later that evening, he called out, perhaps for the first time in his life a phrase he heard in the boxing ring ‘I concede’ and expired. His grave includes both his given and his adopted surname.